Trump team doubles down despite Bolton bombshell
President Trump’s lawyers did not change their tactics Monday despite bombshell new revelations related to former national security adviser John Bolton’s alleged knowledge about the Ukraine affair at the center of the president’s impeachment trial.
In hours of arguments on the Senate floor, Trump’s attorneys did not address or seek to knock down Bolton’s account as Trump himself has done.
Instead, they doubled down on their argument that House Democrats did not uncover evidence showing Trump tied military assistance or a White House meeting to Ukraine launching investigations.
The unflinching strategy from Trump’s legal team comes as signs grow that Republican senators may vote to subpoena Bolton and other witnesses in the impeachment trial after opening arguments conclude.
Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow said at the outset of Monday’s proceedings that the team would not deal in “speculation,” making clear the new Bolton revelations would not figure into the team’s plans without explicitly acknowledging the elephant in the room.
“We deal with transcript evidence. We deal with publicly available information. We do not deal with speculation, allegations that are not based on evidentiary standards at all,” Sekulow said.
The defense team’s case has hinged on a few key arguments.
One is that Trump did not explicitly connect a hold on security aid for Ukraine to the country’s help with investigations into his political rivals. Lawyers for Trump have argued Democrats failed to produce more than secondhand and thirdhand witness accounts and that witnesses have only speculated about Trump’s desire for a “quid pro quo” related to the investigations.
Bolton’s manuscript threatens to upend the effectiveness of that approach. The New York Times reported that Bolton wrote of an August meeting in which Trump said he would not lift a hold on nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine until the country assisted with investigations into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump in an overnight tweet denied telling Bolton that aid for Ukraine was tied to investigations, and the president’s team made no explicit mentions of Bolton on Monday. It instead harped on the evidence presented by House managers and claimed evidence Democrats did not focus on during their three-day presentation exonerates Trump.
“The House managers’ own record, their record, that they developed and brought before this chamber, reflects that anyone who spoke with the president made clear that there was no linkage between security assistance and investigations,” deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura said.
The defense is expected to wrap its arguments on Tuesday as it seeks to assuage senators still on the fence. Senators will then have 16 hours to ask questions before moving to a vote on whether to subpoena witnesses.
The GOP-controlled Senate is nearly certain to acquit Trump. Prior to Sunday’s bombshell on Bolton’s book, it appeared likely Republicans would be able to vote down an effort to hear additional witness testimony and evidence.
Some members remained confident that would be the case, brushing aside the Bolton allegations as an effort to drum up publicity for his book and questioning why it should fall to the Senate to gather new evidence.
“The one thing I know for sure is John Bolton doesn’t know a single thing today he didn’t know before Christmas,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters at the Capitol. “It’s the House’s job to put a case together.”
But a trio of Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah) — have remained open to hearing from witnesses since the outset of the trial. Romney on Monday suggested some of his GOP colleagues were increasingly willing to hear new evidence in light of the allegations levied in the Bolton manuscript.
Without mentioning Bolton on Monday, Trump’s attorneys also argued against the Senate considering new evidence and witnesses, reiterating their position that the House process was one-sided and unfair and that it isn’t the Senate’s job to “redo” the investigation.
Trump in a tweet early Monday argued it wasn’t up to the Senate to call Bolton now, claiming falsely that House Democrats “never even asked” Bolton to testify.
The position of ignoring Bolton may become untenable, particularly with questions from senators looming.
“I think it’s inevitable they’re going to need to do that,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said when asked about addressing the Times’s report. “I wasn’t sure the timing on that, but I think it’s inevitable.”
The White House is said to be gearing up in the event of a drawn-out legal battle to block potential testimony from Bolton. Trump has previously indicated he will invoke executive privilege to try to stop his former top adviser from sharing certain details.
“The problem with John is that it’s a national security problem,” Trump told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. “John, he knows some of my thoughts. He knows what I think about leaders. What happens if he reveals what I think about a certain leader, and it’s not very positive, and then I have to deal on behalf of the country?”
Trump went on to suggest that other considerations were also at play with respect to Bolton’s testimony.
“I don’t know if we left on the best of terms,” the president said. “And so, you don’t like people testifying when they didn’t leave on good terms — and that was due to me, not due to him. And so, we’ll see what happens.”
Trump’s lawyers have also argued that Democrats’ allegations do not meet the criteria for an impeachable offense because they do not allege a crime.
That featured prominently in former independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s first remarks on the floor of the Senate on Monday. He called it a “weighty consideration” for senators as they decide how to vote at the end of the trial. Sekulow also claimed that House Democrats were trying to remove Trump from office over a foreign policy disagreement, not an impeachable offense.
A number of legal experts, however, have contested the interpretation of the Constitution that a crime is needed to impeach a president.
Jordain Carney and Olivia Beavers contributed.